Article Overview: Wilderness Rock Climbing Controversy Explained
Rock climbing at wilderness areas in national parks, including the famous El Capitan climb and Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, could face new regulations on fixed anchors, including a fixed anchor ban.
The sweeping proposed changes potentially impact all wilderness lands under the National Park Service (NPS) and the National Forest Service (NFS). The changes to the Wilderness Act would unhinge decades of precedent set by the many fixed routes that are engrained (albeit, by humans) into the most iconic climbs of public lands.
A comment period kicked off on November 17 so everyone can offer input before the final decision. But what does this mean? How strict are the changes? Are fixed anchors really a blemish in violation of the Wilderness Act of 1964?
We’ve also gathered the full documents for you to review and have contact information to make sure your voice is heard before the January 16, 2024 deadline. We’d love to hear your thoughts separately in the comments section below.
Fixed Anchors in Wilderness Changes Overview
At the heart of the fixed anchor ban controversy lies fixed anchors that assist climbers in navigating rock walls. While both NPS and the USFS agree that rock climbing is an appropriate use of the wilderness, the mechanisms that assist climbers are under scrutiny.
Under the new proposals, any parts of the fixed anchor would be illegal unless approved by individual parks or forest lands. Even with their small size compared to other “installations” like bridges and fire towers, they could still be considered as such. Every fixed anchor would be seen as a violation of the 1964 Wilderness Act without prior approval.
That definition includes “anything made by humans that is not intended for human occupation and is left unattended or left behind when the installer leaves the wilderness.”
It’s important to note that the new regulations would only impact Wilderness areas. However, that also includes 95% of Yosemite National Park and 94% of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The NPS Wilderness Rock Climbing Proposal
Director’s Order 41 (downloadable version below), also known as Wilderness Stewardship, outlines the National Park Service’s (NPS) guidelines for managing wilderness areas, including rock climbing activities.
The NPS proposes a Minimum Requirements Analysis (MRA) to help determine the least restrictive means of managing rock climbing in wilderness areas. The MRA considers a variety of factors, including the impacts of fixed anchors on wilderness resources, the safety of climbers, and the experiences of other wilderness visitors.
One of the comments sparking the most outrage in the rock climbing community is that “Fixed anchors should be rare in the wilderness” while “‘Clean climbing’ techniques should be the norm in the wilderness.”
CLEAN CLIMBING: Clean climbing is a style of rock climbing that emphasizes the use of natural features, such as cracks and crevices, for protection instead of relying on fixed anchors. Clean climbers place protection sparingly and only when necessary for safety.
Possible Permits for Fixed Anchors
Another directive in the plan requires a permit for fixed anchors like many parks require for backcountry trips and camping.
“A permit is required to authorize the placement of permanent fixed anchors and/or fixed equipment for the
purpose of facilitating recreational climbing in park wilderness areas,” the document states.
What isn’t clear about that guidance is how a climber halfway up a mountain who suddenly needs a fixed anchor is supposed to get a permit while dangling hundreds of feet above the ground.
Rock Climbing Liability Concerns
The guidance even goes as far as to say that “fixed anchors may, for various reasons, pose a safety risk that the NPS cannot always mitigate.” Should a particular route be deemed too dangerous, removing fixed anchors would be an option.
While the goal is to reduce the risk, a cautionary note would be required that any fixed anchor was not installed by the NPS and isn’t guaranteed to be safe for use.
Popular climbs face rerouting or closures, either temporarily or permanently.
On the other hand, the rock climbing community says a lack of fixed anchors could lead to safety risks for those who climb.
READ The NPS Proposal
Feel free to download this copy of the National Park Service proposal to review. Once you are ready, give your input before January 16, 2024.
The NFS Wilderness Rock Climbing Proposal
Let’s summarize the key highlights of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) plan in relation to fixed anchors in wilderness areas:
- Establishment of a National Framework: The plan aims to establish a consistent and predictable national framework for managing fixed anchors in wilderness areas across the country. This will provide clarity and guidance for climbers and land managers alike.
- Emphasis on Minimum Requirement Analysis (MRA): The USFS emphasizes the use of MRAs to determine the appropriateness of fixed anchors in specific wilderness areas. MRAs consider the potential impacts of fixed anchors on wilderness resources, climber safety, and the experiences of other wilderness visitors.
- Range of Management Options: The plan outlines a range of management options for fixed anchors, ranging from unrestricted use to complete prohibition. The specific management approach will vary depending on the results of MRAs and the unique characteristics of each wilderness area.
- Climber Responsibility for Fixed Anchor Removal: The plan requires climbers to remove unnecessary fixed anchors. This will help to reduce the overall number of fixed anchors in wilderness areas and minimize their impact on the environment.
- Balancing Wilderness Protection and Recreational Opportunities: The USFS recognizes the importance of both protecting wilderness resources and providing opportunities for recreational activities like rock climbing. The plan seeks to strike a balance between these two objectives by employing evidence-based management practices.
The Forest Service continues to work with Tribal relations to protect “cultural resources such as Indian sacred sites.”
READ the NFS Proposal
While the NPS and NFS plan include similar goals, the NFS plan should be considered on its own before giving feedback. Once you are ready, you can submit your feedback.
Climbing in Wilderness vs. National Park
As noted above, the proposed changes would only impact designated wilderness areas. It wouldn’t affect all national parks. However, areas of national parks that fall within wilderness designations are in the hot seat. As another example, that includes 80% of Yellowstone National Park.
What’s the difference? Several reasons why some national parks get designated as wilderness areas include:
- First, wilderness designation can provide an extra layer of protection for the park’s natural resources. The stricter regulations of the Wilderness Act help to ensure that these areas remain pristine and undisturbed.
- Second, wilderness designation can enhance the wilderness experience for visitors. The absence of motorized vehicles and the limited use of machinery and tools create a more tranquil and immersive wilderness experience.
- Third, wilderness designation can help to preserve the natural character of the park. The restrictions on development and activities help to ensure that these areas retain their natural beauty and ecological integrity.
Ultimately, Congress makes the decision of whether or not to designate a portion of a national park as wilderness.
At the same time, the Protect America’s Rock Climbing (PARC) Act is working its way through the house in 2023. It’s looking like that will extend into 2024.
Speak Up About Wilderness Rock Climbing Regulations
No matter where you stand on the issue, it’s important to have a voice in the public lands we love. The decisions we make today will impact generations of our families for centuries to come.
What’s especially important to remember as you respectfully submit your opinion is this – advocates and adversaries of the proposals all want to get maximum enjoyment from our public lands.
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